‘Madame Bo­vary’

De­spite lovely vi­su­als and Mia Wasikowska’s act­ing, ‘Bo­vary’ is yet an­other failed at­tempt at the clas­sic novel.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - KEN­NETH TU­RAN FILM CRITIC ken­neth.tu­ran@la­times.com

A vis­ually stunning but de­cid­edly glum ver­sion of novel.

It may be, as the proverb states, that in­side ev­ery fat per­son there is a thin one try­ing to get out, but it is likely not true that in­side ev­ery great novel there is a fine film strug­gling to be made. A case in point, and not for the first time, is “Madame Bo­vary.

Nu­mer­ous film­mak­ers, in­clud­ing such ti­tans as Jean Renoir, Vin­cente Min­nelli and Claude Chabrol, have taken a crack at Gus­tave Flaubert’s land­mark 19th cen­tury novel with­out no­tice­able ef­fect. Now it is So­phie Barthes’ turn, and although her “Madame Bo­vary” is cer­tainly well made, it is a hard film to work up any en­thu­si­asm for.

Barthes, whose first fea­ture was the very dif­fer­ent Sun­dance item “Cold Souls,” has taken great care with the phys­i­cal look of her “Bo­vary.”

Col­lab­o­rat­ing with cine­matog­ra­pher An­drij Parekh, pro­duc­tion designer Benoit Barouh and cos­tumers Chris­tian Gasc & Valérie Ran­choux, she has cre­ated a con­vinc­ing vis­ual por­trait of the dreary, dead end pro­vin­cial France that proved to be feck­less ro­man­tic Emma Bo­vary’s un­do­ing in Flaubert’s 1857 novel.

Also do­ing well is star Mia Wasikowska, who pre­vi­ously gained 19th cen­tury novel adap­ta­tion ex­pe­ri­ence by star­ring in 2011’s “Jane Eyre.” None of th­ese fac­tors, how­ever, stops this “Madame Bo­vary” from be­ing a no­tice­ably glum pro­duc­tion, even for a story that does not have a happy bone in its body.

Barthes, who also wrote the script with co-pro­ducer Felipe Marino, has cho­sen to trun­cate and fo­cus the novel’s tra­jec­tory. Her mea­sured, dis­tanced style brings a cer­tain stiff­ness to the pro­ceed­ings and makes us miss even more than usual the Emma Bo­vary in­te­rior mono­logue that makes the book so mem­o­rable.

Also, by em­pha­siz­ing the gen­uinely con­strained na­ture of the lives of women who were both stran­gled in corsets and drown­ing in pet­ti­coats, Barthes makes this al­ready dis­turb­ing tale even more of a long drum roll to an in­ex­orable doom. In fact, by choos­ing to open the film with a scene from late in the novel and then f lash­ing back, Barthes makes sure no one gets the wrong idea about where this story is headed.

Af­ter that open­ing, “Bo­vary” shows us Emma’s com­par­a­tively happy days be­ing ed­u­cated with other girls in a con­vent school, a refuge she leaves for a mar­riage ar­ranged by her fa­ther. “Please let it be the right one,” she prays about her hus­band as she leaves, but it is not to be.

That hus­band turns out to be coun­try doc­tor Charles Bo­vary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), more good-heart- ed than he is in the novel but some­one who doesn’t un­der­stand Emma at all and ne­glects her for his job bleed­ing and leech­ing the vil­lage sick.

With noth­ing to do and only the house­maid Hen­ri­ette (Laura Carmichael, “Down­ton Abbey’s” Lady Edith come down in sta­tion) for com­pany, Emma finds her­self in­creas­ingly dis­traught. “The days bring noth­ing,” she prac­ti­cally sobs. “Is this the will of God? Is my fu­ture just a dark cor­ri­dor with a bolted door at the end?”

The only di­ver­sions Emma can claim for her own turn out to be shop­ping and sex, both of which have prob­lem­atic, not to say ru­inous, con­se­quences for her.

Un­der the unc­tu­ous tute­lage of lo­cal mer­chant Mon­sieur Lhereux, Emma, who has a weak­ness for per­sonal van­ity, dis­cov­ers the joys of con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion. The ver­sa­tile Rhys Ifans is so con­vinc­ing in the store­keeper role he makes you feel the power of the forces push­ing Emma to spend more than her hus­band can af­ford.

Ig­nored by that hus­band, Emma is all too vul­ner­a­ble to at­ten­tions from men who do not have her best in­ter­ests at heart.

The rak­ish lo­cal aris­to­crat, the Mar­quis An­dervil­liers (Lo­gan Mar­shall-Green), finds her at­trac­tive, as does a hand­some young law clerk named Leon (Ezra Miller of “The Perks of Be­ing a Wallf lower”), who is de­scribed by a friend as “the last ro­man­tic in all of France.”

Alas, that ti­tle fits Emma Bo­vary more than it does any of the men in her life, and in an ideal ver­sion of the novel, we would em­pathize deeply with her dilemma at the same time as we would cringe at the na­ture of the choices she makes. Sadly, this “Madame Bo­vary” makes that iden­ti­fi­ca­tion harder than it should be.

Pho­tog raphs by Alchemy

THE MAR­QUIS (Lo­gan Mar­shall-Green) has eyes for bored, vul­ner­a­ble Emma Bo­vary (Wasikowska).

MIA WASIKOWSKA stars as Emma Bo­vary in So­phie Barthes’ film.

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